Although I was unable to see the actors in action, I got a sense of the production as the enthused director, third year psychology student Antoni Czerwinski, took me on a conversational tour of his vision for the play. It is a pliable, one-act piece of writing by William Mastrosimone, which lasts only about an hour, but has immense emotional weight. Disturbed by the prevalence of school shootings in America, and specifically Kip Kinkel’s 1998 attack on Thurston High School, the playwright explores the psyche of Josh, a teenager who brutally shoots his parents and classmates.
The piece is one which, in the words of the writer, requires “no set, no lights, no costumes (except for contemporary dress)”, facilitating how it spread like wild fire. This minimalism is something which Czerwinski has taken full advantage of, promising a production with a subtle use of lighting and a solitary piece of furniture. Czerwinski’s capacity to exploit the writing’s plasticity quieted one of the primary qualms I had about the piece: The writing was bred with American culture in mind, meaning the leap to a European setting would possibly detract from its powerful relevancy. This is especially considering how the last mass school shooting in Britain was the Dunblane school massacre, which took place in 1996, before many current students were even born.
This fear was dispelled when I saw the set design, as the floor is to be papered with news articles, from America, but perhaps more interestingly also from European settings, such as the Czech Republic and Serbia. This plays both on the fascination with crime drama which has spiked in the past few years, considering the likes of Making of a Murderer, whilst also showing that rather than necessarily being a direct comment on gun culture in America, this production deals with the universal teenage condition. This is conveyed by how the piece engages with the hunter as much as the victims, exhibiting a sombre sense of empathy with the desperate offender crucified so utterly by the media.
The smart decision to use the floor as a statement piece has a secondary, more pragmatic effect, as it helps darken the already intimate Burton Taylor studio, complementing its shady, atmospheric walls. This mutedly plays up the connections between the writing and the difficult discourses surrounding mental illness in Oxford. Although less drastic and sadistic, the negative, overwhelming emotions of self-loathing and isolation experienced by the protagonist can sometimes rise in our highly pressurised environment. Additionally, the doubling of the creative and practical during the staging of the play is admirable as the fifty audience members will be seated in an octagon. This places focus on the multiple exits, which will allow for crisp transitions while also emphasising the themes of exiting and death at the centre of the play, as is accentuated by how each victim has their own way out.
Thus the play clearly comes to grips with themes which reverberated around the minds of high school students, considering the tens of thousands of productions which have sprung up from the intense script, all attempting to fathom acts of unthinkable cruelty. As the author states, it is “a drama to be performed by kids, for kids”, as is expressed by the darkly playful title. This in my mind makes it exceptionally well chosen and fresh for a university audience, who are on the cusp of adulthood. We have had a bit of breathing space from the traumas of high school, but are still essentially kids, with the experience of teenage angst still fresh in our collective consciousness. Ultimately, hopefully the robust cast of seven will be able to execute Czerwinski’s solid vision.